Could Psychedelics Strengthen the Will?
Research shows psychedelics may enhance cognition, and in the long-run might enhance executive function, or what is commonly called willpower. This latter theory may be supported by their antiaddictive properties. What would you do with enhanced willpower?
It has been said that we are in the midst of a Psychedelic Renaissance, with news articles and research being released continuously touting promising findings about these hallucinogenic substances: small “microdoses” of psychedelics are said to be productivity and creativity enhancing, while larger doses are claimed to help treat depression and PTSD. But what about an essential question: what are the long-term effects of using psychedelics?
We know only a bit, but the data is encouraging. Unlike addictive drugs, their use doesn’t seem to be associated with any negative effects, instead long-time users of one of the most potent psychedelics in the world (DMT) actually seem to show less mental health problems, as well as enhanced ‘executive function.’ Executive function, or cognitive control, useful for goal-directed behaviors, includes what might commonly be called willpower. However, we should consider the possibility that individuals with higher than average mental health and executive function, are just better suited to be long-term psychedelic users. Others, perhaps not as mentally healthy, or cognitively sharp, are potentially less likely to use psychedelics, or more likely to quit using them, maybe having less willpower?
However, there is perhaps additional compelling evidence in favor of psychedelics having cognition and willpower enhancing properties in the long-term, even in those with ‘weak wills.’ This comes in the form of increasing data that psychedelics possess antiaddictive properties, helping combat addictions. Addictions to seemingly all substances of abuse appear to be combatted after exposure to any one of numerous psychedelic substances. Because addictions can be seen as habitual behaviors gone out of control, and, intuitively, the way to overcome habitual behaviors is through willpower, is it again possible that psychedelics strengthen the will?
Modern scientific accounts of human behavior are compatible with the idea that our actions are a product of habitual and willful, goal-directed behaviors. In order for a habit to be suppressed, and a goal to win, it seems, goal-directed behaviors have to out-compete, or potentially inhibit the habitual behavior in the brain. It can be argued that there must be lasting brain changes taking place in order for psychedelics to cause such enduring changes in the behavior of addicted individuals. It is thus conceivable that psychedelics help beat addictions by enhancing brain areas or systems involved in willful goal-directed behavior. In support of this notion, several studies now show that psychedelics might alter genetic expression in the brain, increasing proteins in the brain associated with learning and memory, and enhancing growth factors, such as BDNF, or GDNF. These substances may then help improve neuroplasticity, making the brain more malleable, and able to change, or even grow, through neurogenesis, the birth of new brains cells.
People around the world make countless New Year’s resolutions, goals that they often abandon far before this time of the year. Truly, willpower would seem to be something that everyone wants more of. If you had more willpower, what would you do? Learn a language? Live healthier? Earn a degree, or two? Become an Olympic athlete? Cure cancer? Seemingly anything is within one’s grasp, with enough willpower.
Nevertheless, even if true, could something be lost, if psychedelics do enhance the will? Maybe yes, perhaps in ways we don’t understand yet. It seems, for example, that psychedelics cause the brain to decrease its number of 5-HT2A receptors, a receptor that most psychedelics attach to, as well as possibly cause one brain area to shrink, while another grows. Few things in life, or within the brain, can be gained without the loss of something else. Thus, despite all of the promising findings about psychedelics, it is perhaps wise to leave them alone, at least until further long-term research comes out. Then again, perhaps if suffering from depression, anxiety, or addiction, maybe their use, in a supervised setting, might even be cognitively beneficial in the long-run, while for some now, psychedelics might help improve or even save lives.
Overall, it seems like a promising time, when as a society we may lose our longstanding fears of these potentially useful substances and replace such anxieties with informed understandings. However, only more time and quality research will tell if this Psychedelic Renaissance leads to an era of a scientific Psychedelic Enlightenment!